Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lutheran Bishop: Catholics Have No Right to Prevent Gay Non-Catholics from Marrying

Thanks to Dennis Coday of the National Catholic Reporter for focusing national attention on a Lutheran bishop's argument that Catholic bishops have no right to impose their official opposition to gay marriage on non-Catholic citizens of the United States.

The specific context for the Lutheran bishop's argument is a proposed amendment to the Minnesota state constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriage.  It is, of course, one of such measures up for a vote in several states on November 6th.

The Lutheran bishop who opposes the amendment--and the Catholic bishops' right to support it--is not just any Lutheran bishop.  He is Herbert W. Chilstrom, former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA).

His argument takes the form of a "Dear John" open letter in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  The John being addressed is Catholic Archbishop John Nienstadt of St. Paul-Minneapolis. At one point in his letter, Bishop Chilstrom contrasts Nienstadt's theology and politics with that of "Raymund Lucker, your predecessor as bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm..." who "clearly understood that one could be a good Roman Catholic and still be open to change."

Bishop Chilstrom challenges his counterparts on constitutional and religious grounds, and both arguments are important for the ongoing concerns of this blog.  What I find most significant about Bishop Chilstrom's stance is that it basically enlists the First Amendment to argue that no group of church leaders have the right to impose their church's moral position on members of other religions and citizens of no religion at all who are not governed by the church's beliefs.

Bishop Chilstrom's open letter follows:

Dear John:

Having served as a Lutheran bishop in Minnesota and then as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), I write as one who stands on level ground with you. Like you, I have a deep sense of call to the ministry of the Gospel.

On the marriage amendment, you are described in the media as having "drawn the line."

In my judgment, you have drawn the line at the wrong place.

I recognize your authority in formulating positions for your own flock in Minnesota. That is one thing. But for you and others to campaign for an amendment that imposes your stance on all citizens in Minnesota, including other Christians, believers of other faith groups and nonbelievers, is overstepping your bounds.

History is our teacher.

Eight hundred years ago, Pope Innocent III presided over church and state in most of what is now Western Europe. He left no room for dissent. Non-Catholics, including Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers, were even required to wear clothing that distinguished them from the church's faithful.

Several centuries later, John Calvin held monumental sway over society in Switzerland, fostering regulations that prescribed much of daily life.

For years kings and heads of the churches in Scandinavia allowed only Lutherans to hold worship services. Believers who gathered without the presence of a clergyman were imprisoned.

Since Israel became a sovereign nation after World War II, some Orthodox Jews have tried to form a government ruled by religious law. They have been firmly resisted.

But in neighboring Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is now attempting to force Islamic law on every citizen.

As these efforts have failed in the past, I believe they will fail in the future as well.

The genius of America is that we separate church from state. As we say in our Pledge of Allegiance, we are committed to our flag "and to the republic for which it stands." As any dictionary will tell us, a republic is "a nation in which citizens elect representatives to manage the government." By placing the marriage amendment on the November ballot, our legislators in St. Paul have ducked their responsibility. They have already enacted a statute that forbids same-gender marriage. Attempting to embed it in the Constitution is simply wrong.

By word and action, you leave the impression that there is little room for dissent in your church. Yet many of us recall that Raymond Lucker, your predecessor as bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm, challenged your church to begin thinking about the need for married men and, yes, even women, to be ordained as priests. He clearly understood that one could be a good Roman Catholic and still be open to change.

In our ELCA, we engage a wide spectrum of clergy and laity in developing statements to guide us in our thinking about complex social issues. When those statements reach our national assembly, they require a two-thirds vote for approval. But no one's conscience is bound by those statements. Dissent is fostered and welcomed.

This raises the question: If there were a call from Roman Catholic members in Minnesota to vote on an issue of significance, would you allow for such a vote? And if a simple majority voted in favor, would you accept that vote as final? It's clear that such a vote would not even be permitted in your church.

Why then have you worked so hard and spent so much of your church's resources to bring this issue to a vote in Minnesota, where the vast majority of us are not even members of your church?

As private citizens, you and I have the right to put forward our opinions on the marriage issue. Beyond that, we should trust our legislators and judges to enact and guard laws that are for the good of all the people. If we like what they do, we can keep electing them to office; if not, we can vote them out. That's the republic for which I stand.

There is evidence that many in your church will vote "no" on this amendment.

I stand with them and with all who will vote "no."

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